The greatest sports people make their day-job look easy, from Pele to Messi, from Bradman to Tendulkar, Muhammed Ali to Floyd Mayweather and from John Francome to Ruby Walsh.
And the word ‘class’ was indelibly written on the wall of the sport of kings from the moment Ruby won his first amateur rider’s title as a teenager in 1996/97.
When interviewed after his retirement it was put to the great man that Kauto Star and Hurricane Fly were the two best horses he partnered, but Ruby diplomatically replied: “Listen it’s impossible to compare horses from different generations” and yet this one time he is wrong!
His partnership with the street fighter ‘The Fly’ was superb and Kauto was arguably the classiest four legged friend he ever rode, regaining the Gold Cup on the mighty French import and partnering him to an amazing five King George VI Chases. If Ruby adored his big race king, then Kauto helped crown him the most majestic race rider of the modern era.
I was lucky enough to host the Paddy Power box at this year’s Cheltenham Festival and we were expecting Ruby to come up to the box on the second floor on day two. I went in search of RW and found him at the bottom of the stairs. I pointed to the box two floors up and asked him if he wanted me to show him the way to which his reply was “I will get up there eventually”. I watched Ruby almost hobble up the stairs to his destination and you could almost tell that his body had had enough, not that I knew of his impending retirement.
And yet once in the room, he lit the place up in a candid and entertaining question and answer session with Paddy Power and took time out to take selfies with all and sundry. He made my daughter’s day having a pic with her some 13 years on from his win on Kauto in the 2006 Tingle Creek when he stopped to thank my then six-year-old for making a poster with the words ‘Ruby Ruby Ruby’ on it. A class act.
So where do you classify the boy from Co Kildare in the pantheon of National Hunt pilots? Well he certainly wasn’t as prolific as A.P McCoy, but he was a deal more stylish. And other jockeys must have almost accepted the almost inevitable coming down to the last as Ruby loomed up alongside them with a double handful.
And therein was the beauty of his riding style, you never quite knew how much horse the maestro had underneath him. I am convinced that by dropping his hands and relaxing his mount, they were almost blackmailed into thinking they were travelling better than they really were and that’s how he managed to coax that extra effort out of his friends below.
And right up until the 11th hour that skilful deceit even flummoxed his main employer, Willie Mullins, as he dismounted from his final triumphant ride on Kemboy and turned to the master of Closutton and said: “Can you find someone for Livelovelaugh’. Mullins said: “But he then said ‘I’m out of here’ and then the penny dropped. I just shook his hand. It was totally out of the blue. I had no idea.”
That was Ruby Walsh to a tee, the master of disguise. Nobody could ever second guess him. No jockey could tactically out ride him. Nobody will have ever have a big race CV like him. Over 210 grade one wins and 59 Cheltenham Festival victories will tell you that, but to get out of the game in one piece is an achievement in itself something his wife Gillian will relieved about, but ultimately as proud as any spouse could be.